Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Polar Opposites

Or the tale of two races 

I just finished up the Zugspitz Ultra Trail (ZUT) and the thüringenULTRA (TU) which occurred two weeks apart from one another here in late June and the first weekend in July.  Different races, yes...  The ZUT takes place out of Grainau in the Alps while the TU goes in the Thüringenwald in central Germany.  One is an Alpine event while the other is a “friendly” ultra that transits over the Rennsteig through the forest of Thüringen.  The ZUT has approximately 5000 meters of elevation change while the TU contains 2150.  Their 2015 distinct differences lay in the weather extremes that characterized each.

Grainau, 20 June, 50F/10C, rain.  About 500 friends and I lined up for a 0715 start of this 100KM mountain ultra.  The weather in town was cold and rainy.  At elevation was below freezing and snowing.  Seeking to limit considerable risk to participants the organization team, Plan B, made the decision early on to alter the ZUT course to avoid two summits that had gained a significant amount of snow overnight.  In my mind this was an exceptional call as the weather would continue to deteriorate over the next twenty-four hours.

With the ZUT start gun Lutz and I headed off to transit around the Zugspitze massif.  He and I had been talking about doing this race together since April.  I was excited to have him along as a partner as we both had scores to settle with the ZUT and I think we make a superb running team.  This race like many previous certainly contained its challenges associated with elevation gained and lost, the distance, nutrition and the endurance necessary to finish.  Going into an event like this I always question where I am with my training and if some unknown will raise its ugly head and kick my ass.  As the rain continued to fall and following my experience in April at the Hexenstieg of being so cold for so long I was very concerned about either having to drop or suffering a cold weather injury.

 Courtesy of Lutz K

The ZUT unfolded for Lutz and I nicely as we progressed along the course.  That rain though, it was coming down and would not stop.  As we reached the first quarter or so Lutz and I were both suffering.  Neither of us could feel or really use our fingers.  I had again made a mistake on my packing list and not brought a pair of waterproof gloves with me.  For the ZUT I wore a Gore-Tex jacket to avoid the mistake I made in April.  Like most other materials Gore-Tex will soak through given enough rain.  We reached the soak through point earlier than I had hoped for.  My only real options by that point were to either drop (No) or to continue to move to generate enough heat to endure.  This latter option ensured that we maintained a solid pace and that we did not linger in any aid stations.  So…  The ZUT became a suck fest – another score to settle.

By VP5 (KM 55) at Reindlau or Hubertushof the rain had stopped, people were saying that we would see no more rain through the evening and I was feeling like nothing could prevent us from finishing.  Fleeting thoughts…  After eating, drinking and resupplying from our drop bags Lutz and I headed out to take on a little more than a marathon.   

With about thirty kilometers to go the weather changed on us again.  It started raining and temperatures hovered around freezing.  This stretch of the ZUT course was tough in 2014.  In 2015 it was soundly miserable.  The leg between Stuibenwald and the aid station at KM88 starts “pleasantly”, but quickly transitions to a serpentine course gaining about 800 meters over a very short distance.  With the rain and accumulated ground water  we quickly transitioned from moving along a hiking path to a path that had become a stream.  I’m not certain where Lutz got it from, but he was in top form going up.  Mentally I drew on his energy to get to the aid station at KM88.

Generally VP9 also serves as VP10 as during “normal” years you must pass through going up to the Alpspitz and back out going down.  Because of the weather and the amount of snow that had accumulated at elevation we did not transit up in 2015.  Instead we refueld at VP9 and headed back down.  This last leg was a “walk in the park” as well as we also moved down a hiking path that had become a stream.  I was treated to a nice surprise when my left toe stuck on a rock and I somersaulted into an actual stream bed and soaked myself yet again.  Joyous!  Simply joyous!  I had been droning to this point.  I was definitely awake from this point forward.

Seems that the last five kilometers of any ultra event are the most challenging.  Lutz and I pushed to get back into Grainau.  Both wanting to finish and finally get warm and dry.

Plan B, the volunteers that support the ZUT and the local Grainau community put on a superb event.  The ZUT will remain on my planning list for future race seasons.
Fröttstädt, 4 July, 68F/20C, waning full moon.  About 250 friends and I lined up for a 0400 start of this 100KM ultra through Germany’s green center.  The weather was balmy and had not cooled much from the day prior.  The forecast for the day called for more than sixteen hours of sunshine.  My personal outlook was one of trepdition.  In 2014 I was able to complete both the ZUT and TU with the same amount of time between the two.  I went into the TU this year having not trained at all the week following the ZUT and having only gotten in thirty odd kilometers the week prior.  The evening before the TU much of our discussion and thinking was focused on the heat that would certainly accompany us and tactics to have a succesful race.  Getting ready to run I narrowed my focus for the day to simply finishing.  No PRs would be a part of my 2015 TU calculus. 

The morning hours unfolded nicely.  I got a short run in with Aschu and Sanna; had a chance to chat with Micha and Udo going into the first VP at Sondra; and spent a bit of time with the race director Gunter Rothe starting at Schmerbach.  To this point temperatures were warm, but tolerable.  It was not until we got to the VP at KM33/Brotterode/am Gehege that I began to recognize that this was going to be one hell of a hot day.  From this point forward we would see the temperatures rise and simmer at 104F/40C.  

From this point forward the TU became one of those ultras where you run, hike, walk from aid station to aid station.  Fortunately, much of the course from Brotterode to Kleinschmalkalden was in the forest and shade providing a moderate 100F/38C temperature.  Time to hydrate, get and stay wet in anticipation for the old rail line that runs from Kleinschmalkalden to the half-way point at Floh-Seligenthal.  This stretch of the course has always been a challenge as it’s a mix of forest and field along a tar bike/hiking path leading to the half-way point and the mental pressure and release that comes with that.

The coolest place on the course!
At Floh-Seligenthal I ran into Harald who had just arrived.  He was not running because of an injury, but was at the TU to spectate and support.  It was great to chat with him, but troubling to hear what he had to say.  In no uncertain terms he told me that I looked like “shit” and probably should sit down, eat and have something to drink.  I told him that I felt pretty darn good, it was damn hot and that I was going to have a seat on the toilet to get some relief and take a break.  All good…  Drink!  Drink!  Drink!

From Floh-Seligenthal I headed off to my second least favorite leg of the TU.  This portion courses through some lovely forests and concludes just shy of Tambach-Dietharz meandering along what seems to be an unending, mind altering stretch along the Spittergrund.  As I was running along working to focus on retaining a positive mental attitude an elderly gentlemen stepped onto the trail just shy of the Löwen-Born spring.  In his hand he held a large garden watering can.  With a smile he asked if I’d like to get watered down.  I thought to myself – “Dude, hell yes.  You are a God send.  This is going to be freaking amazing!”  I asked him to pour water over my head and down my back.  He warned that the water was going to be cold as he’d just gotten it out of the Löwen-Born.  COLD was an understatement.  As the water flowed down my neck and back it was breathtakingly delicious.  I had to stop myself from bellowing “PHUCK!  That’s some cold ass water”.  I don’t know if Gunter and his team organized this watering hole, but this gentleman and many others that just “appeared” along the way helped ensure that I finished the 2015 TU.

Aid Station in Tambach-Dietharz

I didn’t remain long at the VP in Tambach-Dietharz; just enough time to dump trash and guzzle a couple of cups of water.  From here I headed off to the VP at Neues Haus.  Like VP 11 I did not want to remain at Neues Haus very long in order to make up time and space.  This was the first VP where I experienced other runners falling apart.  VP 12 was not a good place to rest as dropping from a race is a contagious disease and spreads very rapidly.  Getting away from here and reducing the remaining kilometers were my focused thoughts.  Off to Finsterbergen and the aid station at the Sports Platz!

Finsterbergen!  Shit!  This VP is another wasteland with runners talking among themselves about how to drop and the VP Team not knowing how to facilitate that happening.  This is getting uglier by the minute.  I took another shower to get ready for the next leg and wished several runners all the best on their decision and headed out as quickly as I could.  My focus – finish this damn thing!  It is now all a mental game.  Drink, stay wet and finish.

The course from Finsterbergen to Friedrichroda to Tabarz is a blur for me.  I had plugged in my Ipod and tuned out.  Tabarz, kilometer 81 and we’re headed out into the open fields and an oven.  This stretch is one of those where you have to put your head down and simply push.  My thoughts slipped between the music I was listening to, drinking and counting on get wet at the VP at Langenhain.

Hydrated, dumped trash, wet…  Time to move from kilometer 92 to the world famous aid station at kilometer 95.  As a runner it’s a wonderful thing to get up on the crest of the ridgeline about a kilometer away from the KM95 aid station.  From this point you can hear the see the “Mad Max Thunder Dome” like set up and hear the announcer and the stations music.  Rolling into the station it was a tremendous boost to hear your name called, the music get cranked and to have the cheerleaders fire you up.  The Team at KM95 played a big part in my making it over the last five kilometers of the 2015 TU Furnace.

Passing under the autobahn headed into the “lovely” industrial park that sits astride Waltershausen and Fröttstädt I slipped through my Ipod playlist, and punched up AC/DC.  There’s not much else like punching through the last gasps of an ultra jamming out to “Highway to Hell”, “Big Balls”, “Thunderstruck” and the like to finish off a scorcher of an event like the 2015 TU. 

Rolling into the finish line I felt a more sense of relief vice one of accomplishment.  I was an hour off of my usual TU finish time, but was glad to have passed through what is one of Germany’s hottest July weekends.  Huge congrats to all of the finishers and to everyone that attempted this “Highway to Hell”.

The thüringenULTRA is a tremendous 100KM ultra event that takes place in the Thüringer Wald the first weekend in July.  Many thanks go out to Lauffeuer Fröttstädt, the town of Fröttstädt, all the volunteers and RD Gunter Rothe.  Can’t wait to sign up for the ten year anniversary event in 2016!